Friday, July 12, 2019

Pseudoscience, Fringe Theories and MESMERIZED

The July 2019 issue of the ASHA Leader, a publication of the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association, has a very insightful article by Nancy Volkers about why pseudoscience is often more popular than statistics and real evidence. The article is entitled, “Does Truth Have A Future?” It looks at why fringe theories are so popular and what to do about their growing influence. 

Volkers points out that one of the reasons for the popularity of fringe theories is that blogs seem as credible to the unknowing reader as peer-reviewed research articles. Blogs are certainly easier to digest. As someone with a master's degree in science, I still find it a challenge to plod my way through research articles, even in my field. They are filled with statistics and jargon I can't always decipher. 

Blogs, on the other hand, can present ideas that make sense on a gut level, even when there is absolutely no science backing their claims, which means that we must all exercise caution when determining their value.

To counteract the effect of pseudoscience in social media, Volkers suggests that researchers (and the rest of us who appreciate real science) should be more visible on social media, which is the reason I'm exploring this topic on my blog. It’s also important to admit that science can be full of bias. Even deciding which hypotheses to test is a form of bias. 

Another article in the July issue of the ASHA Leader, “The Research Translation Problem: A Modest Proposal,” by Meredith Harold, suggests that clinicians (SLPs and audiologists), scientists, business owners, and leaders should use “Empathy-Rooted Problem-Solving” to bridge the gap between research and its practical application. Dr. Harold points out that the expected audience of a typical research article is other scientists, NOT therapists or teachers and certainly not the general public. She suggests that spreading the information in these articles in a way that others can understand could be done much more effectively than it is happening now. Also, more research should focus on the needs of the people in the trenches - the therapists, teachers, administrators, and publishers of educational resources who are responsible for putting research to practical use.

I recommend that anyone who has access to the ASHA Leader articles look these over closely. It is available to SLPs and audiologists who are members of ASHA. 

On this topic, I believe it's crucial to teach children from a young age how to understand the scientific process and how to recognize bias so that they will grow up to be wise consumers of the growing sea of information coursing through the internet.

One book that does this brilliantly but simply in a fun but compelling non-fiction narrative is Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France written by Mara Rockliff with illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. 

Benjamin Franklin travels to France to ask King Louis for financial assistance with the revolutionary war. While Franklin is in Paris, Dr. Mesmer creates quite a stir by claiming to have discovered a mysterious, new, invisible force with the power to cure any kind of illness. Benjamin Franklin exposes Mesmer for the fraud that he is by running experiments using the scientific method. The author and illustrator do an excellent job of explaining terms like hypothesis and placebo effect in a way that is both humorous and accessible.

I will be discussing Mesmerized at length along with several other non-fiction narrative picture books in my upcoming educational book, Story Frames: Using Narratives to Improve Reading Comprehension, Writing, Executive Function Skills and More (Brookes Publishing, October 2020).

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